By Keith Halladay
About halfway through Friday night’s Open Mic Grand Championship, when Sam Wooden & the Urbane Gentleman had finished their set and gotten off stage, I accosted Brian Powers, their bassist, and told him this:
“Sam is the best songwriter working in Lexington—nay, anywhere—today, full stop.”
“Yeah—I know,” he replied. “Too bad he’s no longer working in Lexington. He’s in Nashville permanently now.”
“Tryna make it on the big stage?”
This was not good news. Rather, it was great news for Sam, but lousy if you don’t live in Nashville. And this was to be his last show in Lexington for the indefinite future, unless he received an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The show in question was the final round of a battle-of-the-bands type series, the winner determined by audience response, and Groove Manifesto were favored. They’d be tough to beat, but the other contenders remained hopeful.
First up: Chained to Fate. Big sound. Expansive arrangements. Intimidating stage presence. Audience interested, but not ecstatic.
Then Sam & the Gentlemen. Look, country popularity goes in cycles, we all know, from glossy crossover stuff to roots music, but this is the kind of country that you always come back to. High harmonies, twang everywhere, honky-tonk guitars, and foot-stompin’ rhythms. If you heard a scratchy LP of Waylon Jennings singing one of these songs, you’d think, what a great Waylon Jennings song. So they do their thing, beginning with this tune they’d put together just the night before (it was awesome), and the audience was digging it, and the five-song set was triumphant.
Velvet Water, next, played that neo-bluegrass music that hippies really dig, with some inspired, roaming solos, and the crowd was into them, but it didn’t seem there was enough ecstasy or triumph to take the unofficial lead.
Then to the smart money: Groove Manifesto. It was clear by the sudden appearance of what seemed like dozens of smiling young women that something about the band had appeal. I confess that my abiding belief in the genius of Sam Wooden led me to silently root against Groove Manifesto, hoping that they’d more or less suck and gift the prize to the Gentlemen.
But they didn’t suck at all. They sounded like a less-angry RATM with occasional forays into deep electric blues. They rocked pretty hard. The audience was ecstatic. The title was surely theirs.
The final two acts, Astor Place Riot and Erik Rust, played their sets with enthusiasm, but most of the smiling young women had already left, and the outcome was never really in doubt. The victors graciously thanked everyone in sight, and the crowd went home happy.